The Freedom of Speech Paradox

The world is a complex mix of competing views. Politicians and pressure groups have fought long and hard to find a balance between the desire for free speech, and the need to limit the voices of extremism and irresponsibility within our communities. Few would condemn the arrest of someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded, confined space; however most respect our right to peaceful protest.

Incitement to violence, harassment or intimidation against those of different creeds, lifestyles or  beliefs should not be regarded as acceptable in a modern liberal democracy. The challenge comes in deciding what should be regarded as incitement, and what should not. I believe that a tiny minority of animal rights extremists have crossed the lines of acceptability and to this end I provide two examples – one recent, and one from some years back.

Case 1: Incitement to murder

Jerry Vlasak is an influential player within the extreme end of the animal liberation movement. As press officer of the North American Animal Liberation Press Office he has become one of the mouthpieces of the Animal Liberation Front and the Animal Rights Militia. His position as a role model has not appeared to bring upon any sense of responsibility for his words.

I think there is a use for violence in our movement. And I think it can be an effective strategy. Not only is it morally acceptable, I think that there are places where it could be used quite effectively from a pragmatic standpoint.

For instance, if vivisectors were routinely being killed, I think it would give other vivisectors pause in what they were doing in their work — and if these vivisectors were being targeted for assassination … — and I wouldn’t pick some guy way down the totem pole, but if there were prominent vivisectors being assassinated, I think that there would be a trickle-down effect […]

And I don’t think you’d have to kill — assassinate — too many vivisectors before you would see a marked decrease in the amount of vivisection going on. (Source)

Now I have little doubt that Vlasak does not intend to murder anyone himself. However it would take only one young, idealistic activist trying to build his reputation and strike a blow for animal liberation to follow Vlasak’s twisted logic into the unthinkable.

Vlasak is not the only person to call for violence against animal researchers (and their families). If the unthinkable was to happen, there would be many animal rights extremists whose words will have played a part in its creation. Nonetheless, surely, there is a moral line in the sand which few if any would be willing to cross, after all the animal rights movement is fundamentally in the business of saving lives (albeit not human ones)? Surely….?

May 31st, 2009, a doctor is shot dead at a church service. It is not the first time he has been shot for his beliefs and line of work, individuals have already called for the death of doctor’s in the same line of work.

The above is not the actions of animal rights activists, but that of anti-abortion extremists. In 2009 Scott Roeder crossed the lines of acceptability and morality and murdered Doctor George Tiller. Such actions were roundly deplored, but little time is spent considering the impact of those that had called for Tiller’s death, and the death of other abortionists. Sadly, many similarities can be found between the tactics of the animal rights extremist movement, and those of the anti-abortion extremists.

Where do we draw the line between Freedom of Speech and Incitement to Violence? This fire at the house of a Pharmaceutical Executive was started by animal rights extremists

Case 2: Naming the targets

The second situation further strains the relationship between freedom of speech and freedom from harassment. What if a known extremist movement does not directly call for the death of its enemies, but instead provides the information necessary to target them. They may not have put the gun in anybody’s hand, but they are certainly showing them where to point it.

Negotiation is Over, a fringe animal rights extremist group has provided such information on a number of occasions. Providing names and contact information for a variety of researchers. NIO’s words are reminiscent of our earlier discussion.

Every time a vivisector’s car or home — and, eventually, the abuser him/herself — blows up, flames of liberation light up the sky […]

The only effective approaches to veteran abusers appear to be through incendiaries, intimidation, and violence.

Bear such words in mind when you consider that on January 8th 2012 NIO decided to publish floor plans for research facilities at the University of Florida. No threats were published alongside it, but then with a website full of calls to harass and intimidate researchers, they hardly needed to put them in the same post.

Is free speech a sufficient barrier to hide behind when distributing such potentially risky materials. When does one person’s freedom of speech justify infringing on another’s right to live free from harassment?

Before I decided to write this post I received an email from a colleague of a researcher who was under threat. One paragraph particularly stuck with me:

I actually cannot believe a court of law would allow documents of this nature containing names of people who work at an institution to be given to a group of people sworn to kill, torture and terrify them. Their site is already filled with people licking their lips about harassing families and even people discussing murder. I have counted a fair number of people who made implications of going to schools where their kids studies. These clearly are a lot of idle threats but it takes just one person to turn an idle threat into a tragedy.

Just one person.

The comments made by Vlasak and others, the documents and finger pointing of groups like Negotiation is Over, are permitted under the guise of free speech. The effect is a generation of researchers who do not dare to speak up for what they do lest they become the next target. Even though many researchers are not aware of characters like Vlasak, or the particulars of the threats made to fellow colleagues in science, these extremists contribute to a general awareness of a dangerous animal rights movement whom many scientists would prefer not to cross. Furthermore, fear may cause some aspiring scientists to choose different career paths at a time when science plays such a crucial role in the economic prosperity and health of a nation.

The Freedom of Speech Paradox is thus – when people misuse this right, as provided by the First Amendment, in order to intimidate others away from being able to use their same right to defend and justify their work.

Tom Holder

11 thoughts on “The Freedom of Speech Paradox

  1. Why the outrage and urgency from the Animal Liberation Abolitionist contingent?

    Watch this video that was taken by ALF activists during a raid of the University of Pennsylvania’s Head Trauma Research Center back in 1984. Reply here if you do not then understand that the fuss is necessary.

    1. It is a video from 30 years ago. Animal welfare has moved in leaps and bounds. Note that the Animal Welfare Act underwent a massive amendment in 1985 to improve lab animal care.

      Also – you can see the animal is anaesthetised before the actual experiment (as is mentioned in the video)

  2. Man, I don’t know, but, I DO know that some website previously had photos of abortion doctors listed as a “hit list” and when any had been murdered they put a big red circle with a line through it over the face. That was ruled protected as free speech.

    Those lunatics who protest at funerals with signs that say “god hates your son” “thank god another soldier dead” “god hates fags” while they scream out at the parents of the dead soldier or gay person about how their child is burning in hell – SUPREME court – YEAH that’s protected and fine, they wouldn’t even require them to be ‘further back’

    People who protest at abortion clinics, right out front, allowed to tell women they’re murdering their baby, the only relief give was that they had to stay on the sidewalk (not up the walkway on the property) and that they can’t stand still, but, must continue to walk.

    BUT a man tries to protest in front of a mosque in Dearborn Michigan (regular sign holding, law abiding, picket protest) HE gets arrested & the police tell them they can’t – then later they say they can but they have to go to a ‘free speech zone’ which is somewhere else.

    In England, if you post comments online that say things like “i hate all *insert race/religion here* and I wish they were all dead” – you can be arrested for conspiracy to commit murder. In many european countries, if you made actual death type threats like that online, you would be arrested for terrorism, conspiracy to commit murder, etc. Of course, if you complain about immigrants or muslims you also get arrested. There’s not really any more free speech over here, unless it is directed at white christians. Then nobody cares.

  3. I guess we all have stories, but one personal one is what was posted about me on a web site. My former address was given (the place where my daughter and grandchildren lived at the time of the posting). I was described as “one of the worst animal abusers in the national capital area.” The instructions were: “Let people of conscience go to that address and do whatever their conscience allows.”

    My crime? Providing environmental enrichment services to an NIH research contractor.

    Prior to that, I had been targeted by leaders of a number of animal rights and “animal welfare” organizations while I worked as a scientific editor for National Geographic.

    My crime? Providing consultation on how to improve care and housing of laboratory primates.

    Sadly, all too many people make irresponsible choices in the service of what could be a good cause–promoting the well-being of animals. And it really goes across the lines of decency when they provide motivation and direction for hateful and unstable people to do what they are seeking an excuse to do.

  4. @Glenn,

    Interesting… but it seems this is limited to acts in public spaces. This brings up some interesting questions… Is the internet a public space? And what if the person uttering the fighting words is in front of your house and your family inside?

    1. I treat the internet as a public space, governed by the laws of the country or legal jurisdiction in which I am physically present when I write a post such as this one.

      California has laws pertaining to hate crimes and verbal harassment. If I were visiting California and using a computer to post comments on the internet, it would be prudent of me to bear those laws in mind.

      1. As I have previously said, I do not know much about the law and its interpretation, but I cannot help but wonder…if hatred and vitriol on the internet or elsewhere is directed against a person because of the lawful work they perform for society, how does the law apply?

  5. Why is The University of Texas in El Paso being given a pass?

    1. UT employs Dr. Steven Best, the animal rights terror ideologue and apologist featured on the NIOs website (his words are taken IN CONTEXT). He is the featured mouthpiece all over these organizations, not just the NIO. UT lends its legitimacy.
    2. The UT administration does little.
    3. The UT faculty does little.
    4. Dr. Best continues to make propaganda to justify violence. He continues to recruit students to fringe organization.

    And who pays for all of this? The University of Texas in El Paso.

    When will the rest of academia stop getting a pass for their failure to condemn AND to place academic sanctions on The University of Texas? Not one professor from that University should SET FOOT on another campus until Dr. Steve Best, the terror ideologue, is FIRED.

    This does not have to be an issue of free speech. Free speech is the First Amendment, period. Free speech prevents the government from censoring speech. It has nothing whatsoever to do with punitive actions of a university against an employee (even against graduate students now.)

    Academia is responsible for this and it is FAR past high-time that “vivisectors” across the country sue the hell out of the University of Texas. It is far beyond time that academic sanctions are placed on UT. Given the targeting of graduate students, we should have little problem in achieving this…

    But why will this never succeed? Because most of academia supports Steven Best. They misrepresent what he does as free speech, all in order to distract us from the fact that his employment has nothing whatsoever to do with the first amendment. Professors will come out of the woodwork to protect him. Faculty unions will throw tantrums and lawyer up.

    That is the real story: the faculty, the unions, and the administrations really couldn’t give a crap about threats against graduate students because THEY are ideologues too. And I will not give them a pass.

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